David Vitter effectively announced his candidacy for re-election to the U.S. Senate last week when he filed nearly three dozen bills on the opening day of the 111th Congress. Most of Vitter's bills reflect his desire (read: urgent political need) to endear himself to Christian conservatives. It's a smart strategy. He also has no other choice.
For more than a decade, pandering to the Religious Right has been a tried-and-true formula for Republican campaigns, in Louisiana and elsewhere. Bobby Jindal used it in his 2003 campaign for governor. Although he ultimately lost to Kathleen Blanco, he captured the political right at the outset by making his Christianity the centerpiece of his message. In 2007, he went there again — with even greater fervor, having spent the intervening four years courting rural Christians at every turn — and it cleared the GOP deck for him.
Vitter is hoping that formula will work for him in 2010. His package of legislation blankets the landscape of conservative touchstones — abortion, public prayer, stem cell research, homeschooling, drugs, the death penalty, illegal immigration and "protecting" the American flag. The Times-Picayune described Vitter's bills as having "a thoroughness that leaves little room for any challenge on those issues from the right." While that may be true in the literal sense — that is, he won't be challenged on those issues — it is hardly true that Vitter's right flank is invulnerable.
Right now, Vitter has no announced opponents. Among his potential GOP challengers are former state Rep. Tony Perkins, now president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, a conservative Christian activist group; and Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, whose candidacy would represent a challenge from the middle. Perkins ran for the U.S. Senate against Mary Landrieu in 2002.
Louisiana now holds separate party primaries in federal elections, so Vitter must win the GOP nomination before taking on any Democrats. The strongest potential Democratic opponent would be Congressman Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville. Melancon, a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House, has been coy as to his intentions. Also mentioned as a possible Democratic challenger is Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard of Baton Rouge, who once led the state Democratic Party.
For Vitter, it's first things first, and that means doing what he can to secure the GOP nomination. He already has garnered support from Jindal, although the two men are hardly pals, and he has locked up financial backing from the state's biggest GOP contributors.
Now, with last week's legislation, Vitter is actively courting the Religious Right. While his bills stake out no new territory, they do state his intentions and give him a platform in town hall meetings and churches (and, he no doubt hopes, a distraction from the D.C. Madam scandal). They do not, however, preclude a challenge from someone like Perkins, whose family-values credentials now seem all the more bona fide in contrast to Vitter's "very serious sin." Perkins also could question Vitter's effectiveness on behalf of those issues in the wake of the sex scandal.
On the campaign trail, Vitter will have to concede his own moral failure. The best he can hope for is to tap into the fundamental Christian belief in the healing power of forgiveness. It might help if he publicly admitted what his "serious sin" was — which he has never done — and asked voters to forgive him, rather than calling it a private matter between him, God and Wendy Vitter. Humility and remorse don't come easily (if at all) to David Vitter, but he's known to be willing to do anything to stay alive politically. We'll see.
In politics, timing is everything. By going after the party's religious base this early, Vitter is letting Perkins and others on the right know they don't have any time to waste.